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Notes on the RNC #3: It’s Wonk-a Vision

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Notes on the RNC #3: It’s Wonk-a Vision

Gustav’s threat seemingly over, day two of the RNC was a return to semi normalcy. For all my grousing Tuesday about the wall-to-wall coverage the hurricane received on the news channels, I was equally taken aback by how quickly things snapped back to business as usual.

At the RNC (and DNC for that matter) “business as usual” means speeches. In fact, the basic building block of any nominating convention is the speech.

Personally, I’ve always felt that too much emphasis is placed on such political oratories. Commentators of every stripe discuss beforehand what the speaker needs to accomplish with a given speech as if a good performance somehow directly translates into good policy (it seldom does). Afterward, these same commentators dissect what the person has just said, how they said it, and judge if they did what they needed to.

There’s a wonderful line from an otherwise forgettable 1970 Stanley Kramer movie called R.P.M. (Revolutions Per Minute). Anthony Quinn plays a college professor at a university that finds itself under siege by student protesters who, led by would-be revolutionary Gary Lockwood, take over part of the campus. To calm things down, Quinn gets up before a large mass of demonstrators and delivers a powerful message urging cooler heads to prevail. The once angry crowd, moved by Quinn’s words, peacefully disperses. Afterward, the leaders of the campus militants discuss what they just saw happen. One of the Lockwood’s lieutenants marvels at the verbal dexterity Quinn employed to win over the crowd. Unimpressed, Lockwood quips, “Mussolini gave great speeches too!” I used that line often during the Clinton years (God, that man was good!)

The major events scheduled for Tuesday night’s events at the RNC were appearances by George W. Bush, Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman.

Interestingly, or should I say suspiciously, George W. Bush opted not to appear live in St. Paul, choosing instead to broadcast his remarks to the convention via the sixty by thirty foot hi-definition screen at the front of the hall.

I say “suspicious” because it’s unprecedented for an outgoing two-term president to avoid appearing at the party’s convention and bless the nomination of his hopeful successor. The obvious reason for Bush’s absence, of course, is his low approval ratings with the general public and the desire of the McCain team to carve out it’s own a separate identity.

Gustav provided a plausible excuse for Bush to not be there on Monday. With the threat over, using that same rationale would have been pretty thin. So, they came up with this apparent compromise.

In terms of staging, the modern nominating convention faces the same challenge as the modern Super Bowl half-time show.

On the one hand, the performance is ostensibly designed for the live audience who are physically present at the venue. However, that same performance has to be packaged for consumption by the much larger population tuning in on television. What works for one audience generally doesn’t work for the other.

It’s like watching one of those old Busby Berkeley musicals that employ creative camera angles. No matter how impressive the dance numbers are, I can’t stop wondering how it’d be possible for the “audience” in the movie to appreciate any of it.

Complicating the dynamic for convention planners is the nature of the different crowds. The two types of Super-Bowl audiences, ticket holders at the stadium itself and those watching on television, are arguably the same sort of people. This can’t be said of the respective convention audiences. Those in attendance are “true-believers” already sold on the merits of the hosting political party while a significant portion of the at-home viewers are still in the tire-kicking stage.

Bill Clinton made a great entrance for his “farewell” speech at the DNC in 2000 that was cleverly designed for a television audience yet could also be appreciated by the people in the cheap seats. Almost like the unbroken opening shot in Touch of Evil, a Steadicam followed him from the dressing room, walking past various backstage activities, and right onto the convention stage. As he made his way forward, a list of his accomplishments flashed across the screen.

When it was announced that Bush would be appearing on the “big board” and knowing that such prepared speeches aren’t his strong suit, I had images of Debbie Reynolds in Mother as she hilariously tried to talk to her son Albert Brooks on the picture phone he had given her. She never quite figured out how to work the damn thing and would invariably end up out of frame while constantly repeating “hello, hello.”

The mental image wasn’t too far off.

One wonders if Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan would categorize the big screens that now appear at all sorts of large televised events, such as awards shows, as “hot” or “cool.” According to McLuhan, a movie screen, by it’s larger than life nature is “hot,” because it demands attention from the viewer. Television is a “cool” medium because its smaller size is less dramatic and invites more participation. But what about a big screen that’s being viewed on television?

Just before Bush’s appearance, shots of the RNC crowd showed them holding up small signs that read “Country” on one side and “Service” on the other. Because the “Service” signs had white letters on a brown background, it looked like the audience was holding up giant Hershey bars.

My mind flashed back to the scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where Mike Teavee fails to heed the warnings of the confectionery magnate and broadcasts himself across the room after leaping into the “WonkaVision” equipment.

I just hate it when I get one of those ideas stuck in my head. Because as I watched Bush from this perspective, I couldn’t shake the thought of him walking off the screen as a sixty foot giant to receive the adulation of the adoring RNC crowd.

The “big-screen” approach didn’t work. Without any way for Bush to connect with the live audience (and vice versa), there was no give-and-take between him and the crowd. Bush would step on applause lines or wait for applause that wasn’t there. He didn’t seem to be talking to anyone because, in effect, he was talking to no one.

In a word, fiasco. It fell flat like one of those Comedy Central roast appearances by a guest who can’t be bothered to appear in person. Or worse, like a Dean Martin roast where the guest clearly isn’t there, but they do camera tricks to make it appear that they really are (I just hate that).

Fred Thompson, of Law and Order fame, gave a barn-burner of a live keynote speech that provided plenty of red-meat for the McCain cause. He movingly outlined in graphic detail the treatment McCain received in Vietnam at the hands of his captors that could best be described as “The Passion of John McCain.” Thompson showed much more energy last night than he did during any of his primary debate appearances. In fact, the joke during the primaries was that the problem with Thompson coming in third in Iowa was that he had to keep campaigning.

But, I will give Fred a piece of advice. Pop a cough drop before going onstage. By MSNBC’s count, he cleared his throat seventy times during the speech.

The night ended with a whimper, rather than a bang, as Democrat/Independent Joe Lieberman gave a more subdued presentation aimed as much to Democrats watching at home as to those in the hall. Lieberman stressed the need for voters to rise above partisan politics for the good of the country.

The crowd responded with the same sort of polite applause that you hear at a recital from parents for another kid’s performance that they have to sit through after their own child has already been on.

This sets the stage for day three of the RNC and Palin’s first major speech since being named by McCain. Her selection has cast an even larger shadow over the proceedings than Gustav had promised to.

And, of course, it’s already being characterized as the “speech” of her life. While I hate that, I have to admit that this, for me, may be the exception that proves the rule.

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.